The creative balance between two possible states of being

Nov 06, 2014

A number of years ago I co-taught a class for graduate directors and actors at Columbia University with Kristin Linklater.  One afternoon I mentioned to Kristin that in order to catch a Metro North train I would need to leave class a few minutes before the scheduled 5 p.m. finish.  We agreed that she would lead the final hour and that I would participate until I had to leave. During that final hour, Kristin taped different pieces of colored construction paper at regular intervals around the walls of the large black box theater.  At first she asked us each to choose a color that we liked and to approach the corresponding rectangular piece of paper.  I chose dark blue.  As I stood in front of the large piece of blue construction paper I could begin to feel the color effect me.  The color transformed from information into sensation and from sensation into emotion as I stood facing it.  After a while Kristin asked us all to leave our spot and choose a new color.  Although I was reluctant to move away from the gorgeous blue, I followed her instructions and found a rectangle of forest green. Oh, green!  What an electric experience.  How vivid and dissimilar the encounter with green is from the feeling of blue.  After a few minutes of green, Kristin asked us to choose yet another color.  OK, so I left my green and walked towards another radically different experience:  Yellow!  Yellow!  Yellow!  What a shock.  Yellow!  Yellow replaced green!  The contrast between colors felt pronounced and intense. Then again we had to move on to the next color where I confronted red, the redness of red. Red!  Yes. And then the next color and then the next assaulted my senses.  As I moved from one to another, each color transformed into a physical surprise of difference!  Kristin asked us to speed up and after a while, together with the students, I was running from one rectangle of color to the next, experiencing the increasing impact of changing colors. The explosive and diverse experiences of color, faster and faster, hit me with increasing power – Crimson! Electric Blue!  Pink!  Purple! Orange! Green! Violet! Yellow!   Suddenly, amidst the riotous assault of color, I glanced at my watch and realized I would be late for my train.  I grabbed my bag and coat, fled the theater onto Broadway, jumped into a cab that bore me to the Metro North Station on 125th street and ran up the steep stairway onto the train platform just as my train entered the station.  I boarded the train, sat down and burst into tears.

Every day our bodies and minds undergo a play between two distinct states: objective and subjective.  Philosophers distinguish between the epistemological, or knowledge based reality, and the ontological sense, the experience of existing.  In most waking moments, we receive information, and sometimes, via our own acute attention, we become aware of the experience of receiving that information.  We make predictions with the useful information. Sometimes, when the circumstances line up properly, we feel conscious of the experience of experiencing.  But mostly we careen unconsciously back and forth between the two different states of being, objectivity and subjectivity. 

I burst into tears on the Metro North train that day in the realization of how little I had been experiencing color, sensation and joy in my daily life.  An accumulation of the recent loss of both my parents combined with a problematic love relationship seemed to put a damper on the experience of living fully and differentiating the quality and sensation of one moment from the next.  Perhaps to protect myself from the pain of experience, I allowed my life to become dominated by the epistemological rather than the ontological, the objective rather than the subjective.  I had lost the creative balance between the two possible states of being. Sitting on the train, traveling north, I felt how my existence is degraded when it lacks regular exposure to a wide range of aesthetic experiences.  This insight helped me to begin to re-establish a balance between the two states of being.

The word aesthetic is derived from the Greek, sensation.  The opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic.  In medicine, anesthetics are generally administered during surgery to take away sensation.  Art, on the other hand, can return sensation, via the administration of aesthetics, to experience. Victor Schklovsky, the Russian formalist theorist of the early part of the twentieth century wrote: “The function of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”  

My encounter with the colored paper on a black wall and my subsequent emotions reminded me to attend to the balance between objectivity, analysis, planning, predicting and contextual consideration with the more immediate, visceral and differentiated physical sensations of each moment.  Living beings are prediction machines and our senses and our perceptions lead us through the world.  How we put these perceptual tools to use matters.  One mode of perception can help the other.  The analysis can aid the sensation and the sensation can help in the successful negotiation of the world.

The philosopher Martin Buber also proposed a two-fold mode of humanity’s relationship with the world, distinguishing between the “I-It” and the “I-Thou” approach.  The “I-It” mode he called experience and the “I-Thou” mode he called encounter. 

The “I-It” relationship objectifies the surrounding world.  We categorize one another, creating distance between us. In a predominantly “I-It” society, Buber suggested that humans feel alienated because of the emptiness brought upon by their lack of relation with the world. Entering into an “I-It” relationship, one makes the other, whether another person, a tree, a cat, a piece of colored paper, an “it,” a mental representation, separate, created and sustained by the individual mind. In an “I-It” relationship, I am an objective observer collecting data, analyzing it, and making theories about it.  The necessary distance between the “I” that experiences and the “It” that is objectified is heightened.   One is subject and the other is object.

The “I-Thou” relationship, on the other hand, is purely relational with the world. In the “I-Thou” relationship the object is encountered in its entirety, not as a sum of its qualities. To approach the other – another person, a tree, a cat, a piece of colored paper – in the “I-Thou” mode, I meet the other without any qualification or objectification. I enter into a relationship with the object, I participate in something with that object and I am transformed by the encounter. Buber wrote, “‘I-It’ can never communicate with our whole being while ‘I-Thou’ can only exist when communicating with our whole being.”  Perhaps, suggested Buber, this “I-Thou” encounter is best described as love.

In the mid 1980s I led a Viewpoints workshop with graduate actors in San Diego, California.  At the beginning of the first session, I asked if anyone had any experience with the Viewpoints.  One participant asked, “Is that the one with no emotion and no face?”  I was disturbed by the question because no emotion and no face is the antithesis of the Viewpoints.  And yet in order to see and feel anew sometimes one must wipe the slate clean and arrive at the experience of moments unfolding with a freshness and openness.  Rather than loading up with ideas and meaning, with epistemology, the experience of the Viewpoints, at its best, is ontological, experiential.  Emptying out makes space for the breadth of sensation and the rich emotion of direct experience or encounter.  By making space, it is possible become intimate with one’s inner climate and with one’s immediate surroundings. Perhaps the best way to approach the Viewpoints is with an “I-Thou” attitude.